The historic Rex restaurant on Montana Avenue in downtown Billings shut down Wednesday, but owner Gene Burgad said he's selling the business to an employee and he expects it will reopen. 

He said the employee is an assistant manager and added that he hopes to close the deal in days. It could reopen shortly after that under the new ownership, he said.

"It's the same place. Unless they do some major remodeling," Burgad, who has owned the historic restaurant 35 years, said outside the restaurant.

The Rex is one of Billings' oldest fine-dining restaurants, tracing its roots to the tail end of the Old West. In 1910, Alfred Heimer, a cook for Buffalo Bill Cody in his Wild West Show, built the Rex Hotel next to the railroad tracks.

It became a meeting place for Western characters, including Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane, and thrived with the bustling rail traffic, according to Gazette archives.

The Rex was nearly torn down in 1975 before businesswoman Senia Hart bought the restaurant. It was renovated by A&E Architects and remodeled to maintain its historic look.  

The Rex also boasts one of the city's best patios, which Burgad added in the late 1990s. 

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The restaurant served steak, seafood, chicken and other staples found in a traditional Montana steakhouse. 

The closure announcement came as a surprise to some who stopped at The Rex at 2401 Montana Ave. for lunch, only to return to their cars. Burgad said he had a big dinner Tuesday night as a farewell.

Burgad said the restaurant plans to honor all gift cards. Customers could email ownership at therex.0117@gmail.com to arrange a reimbursement, he said. 

"It was a great run," Burgad said. 

Burgad declined to discuss whether the restaurant had been losing money on Montana Avenue, which has become a destination street in the city for food. Lilac, Cafe Zydeco, Cafe Italia, McCormick's Cafe and Uberbrew are among the restaurants within a block or two of The Rex. 

The Rex has 60 employees, and Burgad said he hopes they stay.

"We're hoping that the new guys take a bunch of them back. They know them," Burgad said.

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